September 2014

Unclogging a vital artery

Ongoing expansion along Alberta’s Highway 63 promises smoother, safer route to the oil sands

By Tom DiNardo

The Alberta government committed another $423 million to twinning Highway 63 between Grassland and Fort McMurray in its 2014–15 budget, released in March. This year’s funding for the project almost doubles last year’s investment.

The “twinning” project, which is expected to be completed by fall 2016, is a plan to convert the extremely busy 240-kilometre stretch of two-lane road between the two cities into a divided four-lane highway. A 52-km section of the route has been finished, mostly around the hamlet of Wandering River, and currently more than 60 per cent of the road’s length is being overhauled simultaneously in a patchwork method. Alberta Transport is aiming to complete another 114 kilometres of roadway by fall 2015. The project was first announced in October 2012.

Highway 63 is the main road linking Fort McMurray and the oil sands operations north of the town to southern Alberta. In 2011, just before construction to twin the road started, roughly 4,000 vehicles used the highway daily, with large-truck traffic to and from the oil sands making up about 30 per cent of that. Two years later, the number of daily users had increased to roughly 5,000.

Imperial Oil uses the highway periodically to move materials including equipment and wants to see the highway construction completed. “The improvement of infrastructure ... is not just beneficial for Imperial but for the industry in general and to the community of Fort McMurray,” said public affairs officer Pius Rolheiser.

Leithan Slade, a spokesman for Syncrude, said the company also uses the highway but the frequency depends on the needs of the operations on their 102,000 hectares of land in the oil sands. “General shipments to the region could include goods and services such as fuels, construction materials and equipment.”

Beyond the demands of industry, the Government of Alberta was motivated to twin the road to ensure the safety of motorists. “People get caught behind trucks that are going 70 km/hr, drivers get frustrated and they begin to take riskier passing chances,” said Jasmine Franklin, a spokeswoman for Alberta Transportation. The twinning project will provide motorists with safer passing opportunities.

Slade agrees that the highway can be dangerous. “Driver behaviour needs to improve,” he said. Syncrude is a member of the Coalition for a Safer 63 and 881, which helps drivers identify and correct potentially dangerous habits behind the wheel. A string of fatalities has plagued the highway, including a collision in April 2012 that killed seven people.

According to the Edmonton Journal’s Highway 63 accident database, 129 people died on the highway between 1999 and April 2012. Of all of the accidents that have occurred on the highway since 1990, 24 per cent were between cars and tractor-trailers, and 28 per cent were between two cars.

So far, there have been some delays inside Fort McMurray since construction was initiated, said Franklin, because of the change in traffic patterns. But both Slade and Rolheiser said the ongoing construction has not affected their operations around Fort McMurray.

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